Shifting Theories of Authorship and Subject Autonomy in Barthes and Foucault

Andres Luco, English 111, 1999

"...society wages a kind of vital warfare to appropriate, to acclimatize, to institutionalize the risk of thought, and it is language, that model institution which affords it the means to do so...(Authors and Writers 191)."

"Discourse that possesses an author's name is not to be immediately consumed and forgotten...Rather, its status and its manner of reception are regulated by the culture in which it circulates (What is an Author? 123)."

In the chapters entitled "Authors and Writers" and "What is an Author?" both Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault attempt to reconsider the role of the author as it relates to textual production and reception. While Barthes stresses the interaction between author and society, Foucault focuses on analyzing the relationship that exists between the name of the author and the text or group of texts it is connected to. In either case, preconceived assumptions about the autonomy of the subject with respect to the reading experience become suspect. Moreover, the theses of Barthes and Foucault point toward the idea of subjectivity as a predetermined position, a role in the text that is reserved for and assumed by every reader. In other words, the subject is no longer considered an outside entity but as a mere variable in a larger mechanism, a mechanism in which the author operates as one of its integral components. Before elaborating on the notion of systematized subjectivity, it is important to consider how the approaches of these two theorists illuminate and, in some instances, obscure one another.

Roland Barthes emphasizes the traditional author as a "mediating figure" who is endowed with profound mysticism at the hands of society. His priest-like status is asserted through a reputed "mastery" of language. However the author only masters language in what Barthes calls the intransitive sense. When an author writes, he writes as an end in itself, thus paying respects to a literary institution which bases its power on language. This paradox is masked by the mesmerizing spectacle of the author's noble (but failed) struggle to capture realityor at least question it. In fact, the author's culminating achievement lies in being accepted into the canon of literature that exalts the language and culture it is identified with. At this instance the author's work is raised to the status of "a sacred merchandise, produced, taught, consumed, and exported in the context of a sublime economy of values (Authors and Writers 189)." Thus, the author's work is initiated into the literary institution that regulates the established principles and norms that come to define a society, and ultimately becomes part of a mechanism that secures against rampant ideological deviance within a culture.

Michel Foucault attempts to revise some of the more recent conceptions of authorship in critical theory. Beginning from an effort at a more thorough analysis of authorship as absence, Foucault proceeds to investigate the function of the author's name in particular. Though his conclusions are admittedly irresolute, Foucault attaches a regulatory role to what he calls "the author function" in terms of how texts are distributed and received in a social environment. According to Foucault, "the function of an author is to characterize the existence, circulation, and operation of certain discourses within a society (What is an Author? 124)." To elaborate, the author function pulls together an array of texts or discourses under one envelope (i.e. the author's name), and offers instructions, so to speak, on how the text should be read. In this sense the author function rises beyond the level of simple indication; rather, it is a cohering device that signifies a discursive unity. Furthermore, the author function valorizes a text as something to be taken under serious appreciationa work that is to be studied and remembered as a significant cultural artifact (It may also be reasonable to presume that just the opposite is possiblethat the name of the author could prompt a review of the text that invariably leads to its rejection). At this point a parallel can be drawn between Foucault and Barthes. It could be proposed that the "author function" sheds light on how Barthe's process of textual "merchandizing" takes place. Like a piece of merchandise, a body of texts is packaged and promoted under the logo of the author's name. The scenario seems to arrive at the same grand consequence: the subject no longer seems to wield full autonomy when it comes to interacting with a text. In one form or another, the "author function" appears to preempt the subject's reactions.

Barthes presents an interesting dichotomy in his discussion of authorship, however. This is the distinction between "intransitive" writing mentioned earlier, and "transitive" writing. Recall that "authors" are defined as those who write intransitively; but there are also those who use writing as a vehicle to a different endthose who write transitively. These individuals are what Barthes calls "Writers": "The writer...posits a goal of which language is merely a means; for him language supports a praxis, it does not constitute one (Authors and Writers 189)." Now, writers are not part of the literary institution per se. The origins of their discourse are far more obscure. And the substance that a writer produces is not innocuous, for it threatens society with a discourse that may defy approval or assimilation by society. In essence, a writer's work runs the "risk of thought." Barthe's postulation of a writer seems to lack the coercive aspects that are attributed to the author. But, in returning to Foucault's argument, it is difficult to imagine how the writer escapes the effects imposed by the "author function." Wouldn't the writer's work be distributed and regulated in the same way? Is the reader not still influenced by the suppositions transmitted through the writer's name, as per the logic of the author function?

In order to hone in on this tension, it proves useful to link two alternative distinctions of authors posed by both theorists: these are the "author-writer" and the "initiator of discursive practices." The author-writer (i.e. the intellectual) may write transitively in the sense that his prime obligation is to communicate thought, but " the same time...keeps him at a distance, obliging him to support himself by means of the subsidiary institutions it controls (Authors and Writers 192)." Thus, it seems that Barthes is admitting that writing can never fully be free of the institutional setting. Correspondingly, according to Foucault's description of "initiators of discursive practices" as authors who "produced not only their own work, but the possibility and the rules of formation of other texts (What is an Author 131)," one would at first suppose that these initiators bear striking resemblance to Barthe's description of a writer in the purest sense. After all, their work catalyzes the communication of thought far beyond the limits of their own practice. However, even in this context a discourse seems to "return" to its initiator, thus recuperating the author function: "A text has an inaugurative value because it is the work of a particular author, and our returns are conditioned by this knowledge (What is an Author? 136)." A discourse may find itself modified since its inception, but the initiating author's name is still tethered to it, always standing as the central point of reference.

Both Foucault and Barthes illuminate some of the more suspicious implications of authorship, the most intriguing of which are its coercive tendencies, ultimately suggesting a compromised sense of subject autonomy in the reception of a text. But Barthes expands his treatise by imagining a form of writing that is devoid of institutional influence. Perhaps through a more detailed analysis of the way in which relationships have been contrived within and between texts (something in the order of Foucault's effort) to form a complex social apparatus, it would be possible to isolate a more liberated form of discourse.

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